Setting the Scene: How to Bring Your Settings to Life

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November 12, 2023

Have you ever read a story with a setting so rich, it felt almost as if the setting was a character itself?

Some authors seem to have an innate talent for creating vivid settings. The streets feel alive, the woods seem to sing with wildlife and native flora and fauna. In fantasy settings, the readers find themselves immersed in the magical world, wholly able to believe in the strange physics of the new world. 

But some of us need a little more help. When I wrote my first novel, I sent it to a trusted friend to read. She said, “I love your characters, but I feel they could have been set down anywhere and the story would be exactly the same.”

She was right.

I did have characters living in a specific city, but there was no reason for it. I didn’t mention the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of the city. I didn’t write about the unique texture that makes up that location. I simply placed my character there for lack of anywhere else to put them.

Creating a vivid setting is imperative to engage readers, but how do you do that if it doesn’t seem to come naturally?

Here are some tips to help you write great settings:

  1. Be intentional.
    Why are you setting your story in this specific place? I read a story last year that was set in a large city in the late 80s, but very little was written about either the timeframe or the specific details of that city. It left me wondering why the author even bothered to choose such a lush setting and interesting time if they weren’t going to immerse the reader in both.
     
  2. Sensory details.
    What major industries are part of your location? That will contribute to the smell. Does it take place in or near a forested area, waterways or the desert? What sounds do your main characters hear at night? In the morning? Think about whether they’re likely to hear a cacophony of car horns and truck motors or the clomp of deer hooves bounding in a field. How do these surroundings affect the way they think or behave?
     
  3. Unique details.
    Every location has its own personality. What kind of restaurants, people, or weather might we find there? What are specific mannerisms or sayings people might have? In other words, what makes this setting different from every other setting? That’s what will draw your reader into your world.
     
  4. Do your research.
    If your setting is in a place that doesn’t get a lot of rain, don’t count on having rainy days as part of your plot. If you set your story in London, make sure you can write about London and not Boston or Singapore. Use a map app, read personal blogs. YouTube is a great resource for travel videos that can help flesh out aspects of your location.

As with anything else, creating a rich setting is all about author intention. How do you want your characters to feel about where they live, and how does that specific location affect the events of the story?

Making intentional decisions about your setting and using vivid details to bring it to life will give readers more than just a story about people—it will give them a new world populated with people they want to know. Let your setting breathe and draw your readers into your worlds, both real and imagined.

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